MuseLetter 205 / May 2009
by Richard Heinberg
This month I have been putting the finishing touches on Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis, which will be published in June by New Society Publishers; and Energy Limits to Growth, which will be released at about the same time by International Forum on Globalization and Post Carbon Institute. In addition, I have given several lectures and attended various conferences and meetings. It’s spring in the northern hemisphere, and time to compost what’s left of the over-wintered annual crops and plant for the next season.
This month’s issue of MuseLetter consists of three recent writings:
- a short essay, “A Beguiling Veneer of Normalcy”;
- “World Energy in Crisis,” an invited contribution to the upcoming revised edition of the award-winning book Earth from Above by French photographer, environmentalist, documentary filmmaker, and television journalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand;
- and an interview for the Italian magazine Consapevole.
Recent travels have taken me to Las Vegas, New Orleans, and of course my home city, Santa Rosa, California. The economies of these places are faring quite differently. House prices in Las Vegas have nosedived, and the urban landscape that stretches away from casino theme parks on the strip is starting to look desperate, with empty storefronts everywhere in evidence. In Santa Rosa, the one huge, recently remodeled retail space sitting vacant while a neighboring giant department store sells off the last of its inventory before shuttering for good. Housing prices in Santa Rosa are way down and still dropping fast—now about half what they were three years ago. Meanwhile in New Orleans, an upscale shopping mall I visited had no vacancies (though the shoppers appeared alarmingly few), and house prices are holding up fairly well. Unsurprisingly, folks I spoke to in Louisiana were less worried than ones in California and Nevada.
Differences in perspective are easy to find also within each community. Talk to a person who still has a job and didn’t have much invested in the stock market and you’ll hear a mostly upbeat view of the economy’s prospects; but talk to another person who was recently laid off, or whose retirement savings have shrunk by half or more, and their outlook is decidedly darker.
Are we at the beginning of an epic Depression, or at the bottom of a nasty recession with brighter days only months away? It would seem to be a matter of perspective. Recent bank earnings reports and stock market activity have led many analysts to claim that the economy has indeed reached the bottom of the trough, and that while the recession is not over the worst has passed. Statements emanating from the White House, the Treasury, and the Fed are ambiguous but generally upbeat: president Obama says dark days still await us, but foresees a return to growth; and secretary Geithner and chairman Bernanke are careful not to talk the market down.
The indicators to which I pay attention lead me to a different conclusion. We are indeed seeing a let-up in the frighteningly rapid financial collapse that began to unfold late last summer. That’s to be expected: all the trillions that are being spent on bailouts and stimulus packages must have some effect—though ultimately it will only be to provide a brief interlude before the storm returns in far greater force.
Why such a bleak forecast?
Real estate prices, and especially prices for commercial real estate, have much further to fall. And that means that mortgage-backed derivatives have further to unwind. The toxic assets that caused so much grief to bankers and investors during the last six months have not really been dealt with, and therefore comprise a time bomb that’s still ticking.
As a result, the banks are still not lending. TARP bailout funds are merely being used to clean up balance sheets while the credit crunch continues unabated. And until the toxic assets are fully and finally dealt with, many of the biggest banks remain functionally insolvent even if they happen to be posting quarterly (bailout-based) profits.
But these reasons for concern pale in importance before the deeper, more profound and systemic problems of our time.
Looming first among the latter is of course the global energy picture. World oil production has hit its ceiling, and though demand and prices are now down, further economic growth will push against energy limits that will constrict further with every passing year. But energy is just one of a spate of limits to growth—a list that includes renewable resources (fish, forests, fresh water) as well as non-renewable ones (phosphorus, zinc, indium). And there are crucial limits not only to sources, but also to environmental sinks (including the atmosphere and oceans) that must absorb the waste outputs of industrial society—most notably, the CO2 emitted by our burning of fossil fuels.
At the same time, the economic crisis is contributing to a fundamental realignment of global finances and power on a scale greater than anything seen since World War II. The neoconservative imperial over-reach of the past eight years created a nexus of problems that cannot be sorted out and solved one by one; at best, a few of the nastiest (having to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan) can be kept at bay while the world watches the curtain-closing finale of US hegemony. It would be nice to think that all of this can happen in an orderly, gradual way, but with China’s exports down by over a quarter and domestic unrest welling up within that nation and scores of others around the globe, there is no reason to assume that it will.
In short, while surface appearances could lead one to think that not much has changed from the status quo ante, in fact the beams, rafters, and studs that hold up the facade of normal everyday existence in modern industrial society are rotting and crumbling. In essence, we are witnessing the shift from a century of unprecedented growth to a century of contraction. Cheap, abundant energy led to an expansion of population, consumption, and financial leveraging based on a belief in the inevitability of further growth (Colin Campbell puts this so well: “Banks lent more than they had on deposit, confident that Tomorrow’s Expansion was collateral for Today’s Debt” read more). Fossil fuels represent 85 percent of world energy, and the total amount of energy annually supplied by fossil fuels has almost certainly rounded its inevitable summit and begun its terminal slide.
The down-slope will be long and rough: even though momentous episodic events are no doubt in store, it is probably better to think of this as a “Long Descent” (John Michael Greer) or a “Long Emergency” (James Howard Kunstler) than as complete and sudden dissolution.
I’m tempted to use downhill skiing as a metaphor here in order to convey some morsel of advice as to what we should do to avoid hitting symbolic trees or otherwise coming to unnecessary grief. But in skiing, the downhill bit is the easy and fun part of the experience; getting up the hill takes time and effort (or a powered ski lift). Ironically, for modern society to get to the point of maximum population and consumption was as easy as rolling down a grassy slope. But finding our way peacefully to a lower, sustainable level of population and consumption will be a rocky, uphill march.
If we want to accomplish that march successfully, we need to put ourselves in the proper frame of mind.
We all want some “good” news from time to time. But what’s “good” news and what’s “bad”? Obviously, losing one’s job or home is painful. The media and the government understandably see the preservation of the status quo as good, and anything threatening it as bad. But if we adopt that outlook, we condemn ourselves to a future of endless bad news. In order to make our way through the decades of transition ahead, it’s important that we adopt a longer view, and devote much less effort to preserving a beguiling veneer of normalcy. The more of us who have a long view, the better. Without it, people (including world leaders) will get scared or unrealistically, giddily optimistic and do foolish things.
That’s why it’s important to keep educating one and all about what’s really happening and why. Ultimately we can indeed live perfectly satisfying lives if there are fewer of us, each using much less energy and less stuff. That’s how our species has spent nearly all of its existence on this planet. That’s the true “normal.” If that is our goal, we can chart a course and certainly arrive back in that condition in due time, much the wiser for our high-energy industrial interlude.
The danger comes when those who are making decisions on our behalf don’t realize what is normal, don’t see that as a necessary goal, and try instead to restart the sputtering engine of growth.
In 2008 the International Energy Agency announced that, “Current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable—environmentally, economically, and socially.” This statement represents a wide and growing public consensus reflecting concerns about climate impacts from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as questions regarding the security of future supplies of those fuels.
However, replacing the oil, coal, and natural gas energy infrastructure of modern industrial societies will be challenging. Significant changes in the processes by which energy is supplied to, and consumed by, modern societies will require massive influxes of capital across multiple industrial sectors at considerable financial risk. Decades have been spent building this infrastructure, with trillions of dollars invested. If the transition from current energy sources to alternatives is mismanaged, consequences could be severe, as there is an undeniable connection between per-capita levels of energy consumption and economic well-being.
The problem is perhaps best understood by quickly surveying the principal energy sources currently available.
Oil is the world’s current primary energy source, fueling nearly all motorized transportation—cars, planes, trains, and ships—and providing about 36 percent of total world energy. Oil is also non-renewable, and many of the world’s largest oilfields are already significantly depleted. Most oil-producing nations are seeing declining rates of extraction, and future sources of the fuel are increasingly concentrated in just a few countries—principally, the members of OPEC. Competition for access to those reserves has already triggered geopolitical conflict on several occasions. Some analysts are of the opinion that total world oil production has entered its inevitable decline phase, and that production will never again achieve levels seen in the period from 2005 through 2008. Oil is a hydrocarbon fuel, so burning it releases carbon dioxide (70 kilograms of CO2 per gigajoule of energy produced), which contributes to climate change.
Coal has been the fastest growing energy source (by quantity) in recent years due to prodigious consumption growth in China, and now accounts for 27 percent of total world energy. It has the worst environmental impacts of the conventional fossil fuels, both in the process of obtaining the fuel (mining) and in that of burning it to release energy. Because coal is the most carbon-intensive of the conventional fossil fuels (94 kg CO2 per GJ), it is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change, even though it contributes less energy to the world economy than petroleum does. New carbon capture and storage technologies could reduce this climate impact, but at a significant economic and energy cost (by one estimate, about 40 percent of the energy from coal would go toward mitigating climate impact, with the other 60 percent being available for economically useful work). Coal is non-renewable, and some nations (UK and Germany) have already used up most of their original coal reserves. Even the US, the “Saudi Arabia of coal,” is seeing declining production from its highest-quality deposits. While official reserves figures imply that world coal supplies will be sufficient for a century or more, recent studies suggest that supply problems may appear much sooner.
Natural gas is the least carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels (58 kg of CO2 per GJ); of the world’s total energy, natural gas supplies 23.5 percent. It is easily transported through systems of pipelines and pumps, though it cannot be carried by ship as conveniently as oil, as this typically requires pressurization. Like oil, natural gas is non-renewable and depleting. Recent disputes between Russia, Ukraine, and Europe over Russian natural gas supplies underscore the increasing geopolitical competition for access to this valuable resource.
Biomass, principally in the form of wood used for cooking and home heating, accounts annually for 13 percent of the world’s total energy consumption and is used by up to 3 billion people. Biomass can also be converted into liquid fuel, used to generate electricity, or burned to co-generate heat and electricity. Biomass is distributed widely; this suits it for use in small-scale, region-appropriate applications. In Europe there has been steady growth in biomass CHP (combined heat and power) plants in which scrap materials from wood processing or agriculture are burned, while in developing countries CHP’s often run on coconut or rice husks. In California, dairy farms are using methane from cow manure to run their dairy operations. Biogas is used extensively in China for industry, and 25 million households worldwide use biogas for cooking and lighting. Biomass and biogas are considered to be carbon-neutral fuels, since they operate within the biospheric carbon cycle. While biomass is a renewable resource it is not a particularly expandable one. Often available biomass is a waste product of other human activities: crop residues from agriculture, wood chips and sawdust from wood products industries, and solid waste from municipal trash and sewage. In a less energy-intensive future agricultural system, crop residues may be needed to replenish soil fertility and won’t be available for power generation. There may also be more competition for waste products as manufacturing from recycled materials increases. Liquid fuels made from biomass (biofuels—principally, ethanol and biodiesel) can substitute for gasoline or petroleum diesel, but doubts have recently been raised about the environmental impacts of biofuels production, competition between crop production for biofuels and for food, and limits to the scalability of this energy source.
Hydropower produces 6 percent of the world’s energy and 19 percent of all electricity. The carbon emissions from hydropower are site-specific and substantially lower than those from fossil fuel sources. Much debate about this energy source centers around its effects on society and whether or not a constant supply of water for power, irrigation, or drinking justifies the relocation of millions of people for dam and reservoir construction. The International Hydropower Association estimates that about one-third of the realistic potential of world hydropower has already been developed.
Nuclear power produces 5 percent of world energy (15 percent of electricity) from 435 commercial power-generating reactors operating worldwide. Uranium, the fuel for the nuclear cycle, is a non-renewable resource. The peak of production of high-grade ores is likely to occur between 2040 and 2050, which means that nuclear fuel is likely to become more scarce and expensive over the next few decades. The average grade of uranium is already declining as the best reserves are depleted. Recycling of fuel and the employment of alternative nuclear fuels are both possible, but these technologies have not been adequately developed. The construction of nuclear power plants is slow and expensive, and there is widespread controversy about health and environmental risks from radiation accidents, problems of waste storage, and security threats from black-market distribution of nuclear materials.
Wind power is one of the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, expanding more than five-fold between 2000 and 2007. However, it still accounts for less than one percent of the world’s electricity generation, and less than one-half percent of total energy. Wind power is a renewable source of energy, and there is enormous capacity for growth: it has been estimated that developing 20 percent of the world’s wind-rich sites would produce seven times the current world electricity demand. The cost of electricity from wind power, already relatively low, has been declining in recent years to a level comparable to the cost of electricity from fossil sources. However, the uncontrolled, intermittent nature of wind reduces its value as compared to operator-controlled energy sources such as coal, gas, or nuclear power. The primary way for utility operators to guard against loss of power to the grid during times when winds are calm is to build extra generation capacity from other energy sources. Therefore adding new wind generating capacity often does not substantially decrease the need for coal, gas, or nuclear power plants; it merely enables conventional power plants to be used less while the wind is blowing.
Solar energy encompasses several distinct technologies—several kinds of photovoltaic (PV) cells that generate electricity directly from sunlight; active solar thermal, which makes electricity by concentrating the sun’s heat; and solar thermal water or space heating. Less than one percent of world electricity (less than one-half of one percent of world energy) currently comes from these technologies. Solar power is renewable and could be expanded dramatically, though PV solar cells are still relatively expensive. PV has recently been the fastest growing energy technology in the world, increasing up to 50 percent annually. However, despite the enormous growth of PV energy, in recent years the annual increase in oil, gas, or coal production has usually exceeded total existing photovoltaic energy production. Therefore if PV is to become a primary energy source the rate of increase in capacity will need to be much greater than is currently the case. Like wind, solar power is intermittent.
Other sources of energy, including geothermal, tidal, and wave power, together produce much less than one percent of current world energy.
The inescapable conclusions from even a brief survey such as this are that fossil fuels will likely yield less energy annually in the future than they do currently, while burning them will entail unacceptable environmental costs. Yet society is profoundly dependent on these fuels: together, they provide about 80 percent of world energy. Alternative energy sources exist, but each is subject to limits of one kind or another, and there is no clear scenario in which the energy from fossil fuels can be replaced with energy from alternative sources without (1) enormous investment, (2) significant time for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.
The problem of how to continue supplying energy in a world where resources and environmental waste sinks are limited becomes much easier to solve if we find ways to proactively reduce demand for energy. And that project in turn becomes easier if there are fewer of us wanting to use energy (that is, if population shrinks rather than continuing to increase).
How far will energy supplies fall, and how fast? Taking into account likely depletion-led declines in oil and natural gas production, a leveling off of energy from coal, and the recent shrinkage of investment in the energy sector due to the global economic crisis, it may be reasonable to expect a contraction in world energy availability of up to 25 percent during the next 25 years. Factoring in expected population growth, this implies a substantial per-capita reduction in available energy. The decline is unlikely to be evenly distributed among nations, with oil and gas importers being hardest hit.
Thus the question the world faces is not whether to reduce energy consumption, but how. Policy makers could choose to manage energy unintelligently by maintaining fossil fuel dependency as long as possible while making both poor choices of alternatives and insufficient investments in them, in which case the consequences will be catastrophic. Transport systems will wither, global trade will contract dramatically, and energy-dependent food systems will falter, leading to very high long-term unemployment and famine perhaps even in industrial nations.
However, if policy makers manage the energy downturn intelligently, an acceptable quality of life could be maintained in both highly industrialized and less-industrialized nations; at the same time, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced dramatically and quickly. This would require:
- Direction of significant public and private investment toward renewable energy research and deployment;
- Re-localization of much economic activity (especially the production and distribution of low-value, bulky items and materials) in order to lessen the need for transport energy;
- Construction of highly efficient rail-based transit systems and the redesign of cities to reduce the need for car ownership;
- Retrofit of building stock for maximum energy efficiency (energy demand for space heating can be dramatically reduced through super-insulation of structures and by designing to maximize solar gain);
- Redesign of food systems reduce energy inputs and the need for food transport; and
- Reduction of the need for energy in water pumping and processing through intensive water conservation programs (7 percent of world energy is currently used in moving water).
Improvements in efficiency, the introduction of new technologies, and the shifting of emphasis from basic production to provision of services can enable economic growth to occur without an increase in energy consumption, but such growth trends have inherent limits. Over the long run, static or falling energy supplies must be reflected in economic stasis or contraction. Nevertheless, with proper planning, there is no reason why, under such circumstances, an acceptable quality of life could not be maintained. For the world as a whole, this might entail partial redistribution of energy consumption, with highly industrial nations reducing consumption substantially, and less-industrial nations increasing their consumption somewhat in order to make basic necessities available to all.
However, societal adaptation to energy limits inevitably raises the question of population. When population grows but the economy remains the same size, there are fewer economic goods available per person. If energy constraints effectively impose a limit to economic growth, then the only way to avert continuing declines in per-capita access to economic goods is to limit population by (for example) providing economic incentives for smaller families, access to birth control, and support for poor women to obtain higher levels of education. Policy makers must begin to see population shrinkage as a goal, rather than an impediment to economic growth.
Altogether, the energy transition of the 21st century marks a historic shift as significant as the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. In retrospect, the two recent centuries of rapid fossil-fueled expansion in economic activity and in human population levels will likely be seen as a historic anomaly, one that entailed a profound alteration of the global climate through the rapid digging up and burning of carbon-based fuels that had been produced and slowly transformed by geological processes over tens of millions of years. It is unclear how this anomalous and perilous interlude in human history will end and what will follow. The only realistic future scenarios appear to be environmental and economic collapse on one hand, or a managed process of economic contraction and conversion on the other.
Interview for the Italian magazine “Consapevole“
Q: Why hasn’t peak oil entered the political agenda yet? Is it because of the opposition of the oil industry, or simply because it is an unspeakable truth?
A: The oil industry has played a role in preventing discussion of peak oil by understating the challenges of maintaining production growth given the decline in discovery of new oilfields, as well as the declining rates of production in existing giant oilfields. However, it is also the case that new issues require time to be understood by the media, policy makers, and the general public. It is only within the past five years that general discussion of peak oil has emerged. By comparison, climate change has been a significant topic for well over a decade.
Q: Do you have hopes that President Obama will face this serious challenge?
A: Our new President inspires many hopes, but in reality he must answer to entrenched economic and political interests. Thus, even if he fully understands the challenge of peak oil—and I am not entirely sure that he does—it may be impossible for him to speak openly about it. He is pursuing the development of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transportation, and these will all help mitigate the worst impacts of oil depletion. I am concerned, though, that the efforts along these lines that are politically feasible may be too little, too late.
Q: The Post Carbon Institute, of which you are a Senior Fellow, wrote The Real New Deal to address it to the new administration of the United States of America. Can you sum up the content?
A: This is a document we wrote to inform the Obama Administration about the problem of energy resource depletion and potential strategies to mitigate that problem. It is important to understand that fossil fuel depletion will impact the food system, home heating, electricity generation, and public health as well as transportation. It is also essential to know that alternative energy sources, while essential, will likely be unable to substitute for fossil fuels entirely, and that therefore society must change how it uses energy and find ways to use much less. Other organizations have written energy briefing papers for the new Administration, but we believe that ours frames the problem and its potential strategic responses in a more realistic, integrated way than any of the others that I have seen have done.
Q: In your latest book, Peak Everything, you bring to the table a variety of peaks: most are negative (i.e. population, grain production, fresh water availability), but some are positive (greenhouse gas emissions, environmental destruction). Are you somehow confident that the positive ones may eventually overcome the negative ones?
A: Hopeful, yes; confident, no.
Q: The economy is walking on a very thin line. Is it reasonable to think that this recession will eventually turn into a collapse once the prices of oil shoot back up over 100$ p/b?
Also, would you say this could “help” the world to address the challenges of peak oil and climate change without wasting any more time?
A: Economic collapse could occur in any case, even without a run-up in the oil price, simply because of fundamental errors on the part of the world’s banking and investment class. However, the most likely scenario would include a partial economic recovery that would be cut short by rising energy prices. The economic crisis will “help” only if we take this brief opportunity to implement drastic energy conservation measures and invest substantial sums in new renewable energy infrastructure. This is what we advise in “The Real New Deal.”
Q: What do you believe should be our individual goals for improving the situation and which are the goals to be approached on a governmental level?
A: The goal of both government and individuals should be to maintain coherent social structure during the economic contraction. If social cohesion fails, then we have lost our chance for survival, except perhaps as scattered bands of pitiful and violent creatures. The problem is that government tends to confuse the maintenance of social cohesion with its continuing support for various institutions that are in fact causing the collapse to occur—institutions such as the modern banking and finance system, or the military-industrial complex here in the US. We must abandon some of these institutions and substantially redesign others (such as our industrial food system and our transport system) while keeping the basic fabric of society intact. That will obviously require courage and intelligence at the governmental level, but also initiative and sacrifice on the part of the population as a whole. As individuals, we should be thinking about what will give our communities and families more resilience. That usually means cooperating more with neighbors, growing gardens, reducing debt, and bartering, among many other things.
Q: Most people wait for the “experts” to save us (and the planet), usually through technology. What is your position towards technology in this sense?
A: Technology can empower us, but it can also disempower us. We can become dependent upon complex technologies that we barely understand, so that we feel helpless to question the status quo or to imagine life without our cars, computers, or televisions—even though everyone lived without these things only a century ago. The experts are perhaps even more frightened to think of a world without complex technology, because they spend all of their time in front of computers, gathering information and following trends. Without their computers their way of life would come to an end! But we must begin to think of simpler ways to satisfy basic human needs, because the cheap fossil fuels that power most of our current technology will soon become more scarce and expensive.
Q: You write that it is reasonable to estimate that we might see a 25 to 40% decline in energy available over the next 20-30 years. How did you figure that number out, and what consequences do you foresee worldwide as a result of this lack of energy?
A: Part of this is fairly simple arithmetic. Assume a 3% annual decline in energy from oil beginning in 2010, a 3% annual decline in natural gas beginning in 2020, and a plateau of energy from coal beginning in 2015 with a 2% annual decline starting in 2025. Those decline rates will gradually increase, and are based on forecasts from Energy Watch Group of Germany. But then for the countries that import fuel there is the problem that available exports will decline much faster, because exporting countries will provide for their own domestic needs before they sell their surplus internationally. Then we must factor in the percentage of total energy coming from oil, gas, or coal—about 40 percent, 23 percent, and 25 percent respectively. We can hope for some of the loss in energy from fossil fuels to be made up by new energy production from wind or solar, but probably no more than 25% of the current quantity of energy being consumed will come from those sources in any but a very few nations by 2030. The result: for a fuel importing nation, it would be prudent to expect at least a 25% decline in total energy by that date.
The consequences will, of course, be significant. It is difficult to see how the world economy could grow under such circumstances; indeed, widespread disruption in transport systems and a decline in food production are just two of the more important consequences we can logically expect to see.
Q: In your opinion when will the collapse strike and what countries will it strike first?
A: This is a more difficult question to answer today than it might have been just months ago. Global oil production is peaking now and declines will commence within two or three years, and the countries that import the most oil will be impacted first and hardest. However, in recent months we have seen a global economic collapse that has cause demand for oil to fall substantially. Because demand is still disappearing, the price of oil has also fallen, and there is now surplus oil production capacity worldwide. Depletion of oilfields continues, and the erosion of production capacity has actually accelerated, because low oil prices are discouraging investment in exploration, drilling, and production. Therefore when demand begins to increase again, or when production capacity falls sufficiently to meet existing depressed demand, severe problems will appear. But because we cannot know now how deeply the economic crisis will constrain demand, it is impossible to say when the oil supply crisis will come. It could come later this year, or it may come in three or four years.
Q: Why aren’t people able to see the problems of peak oil and climate change? Is it a psychological block? Is it denial? If so, is it caused by fear of change?
A: Sometimes people do not see things they don’t want to see.
Q: Why does the media talk more about climate change than peak oil?
A: It is understandable that more attention is given to climate change. Far more research has been done on this subject, and for a longer time. Moreover, climate change will have more far-reaching and longer-lasting consequences. However, unless society dramatically and quickly reduces its reliance on oil, it is likely that oil depletion and resulting scarcity will produce more dramatic and immediate economic and political impacts than those from climate change. If we do not address peak oil, society may find itself incapable of mobilizing a coordinated effort to mitigate climate change.
Q: What is the importance of the media in informing people and promoting change?
A: If people do not know what is happening, there is no hope that they will make sensible decisions. They may choose to act irresponsibly even if they know the facts, but without accurate, freely available information there is simply no possibility of a coordinated, successful response to the threats of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.
Q: Would you be able to identify which consequences of climate change are closest to us in time? When do you predict major problems will come about with climate change?
A: The first impact of climate change to affect humans substantially will be changes in weather patterns that make agriculture less productive. This is already beginning, and may result in lower crop yields over the next few years, with worsening impacts following that. Coupled with the impending fuel shortages, this creates the possibility of widespread famines. These may be only years away.
Q: Carbon emissions were 275 ppm at the beginning of the industrial era. They are currently 387 ppm where the safest level is considered to be 350 ppm max. Is there a projection for the next, say, 20 years?
A: That of course depends on how close we remain to a “business as usual” consumption scenario. As a result of the economic crisis and peak oil, I think that it is now virtually impossible for society to continue growth in consumption of fossil fuels according to most of the projections of the IPCC. However, for society to reduce the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to 350 ppm or below, we will need strong, coherent climate policy. Depletion and economic depression by themselves will not achieve that goal.
Q: The position of most environmentalists is that everything that can aid in cutting the emissions should be pursued (this implies a technological approach). Do you agree with this perspective or would it be wiser to address the problem from a more holistic approach (for example, promoting a simpler lifestyle in order to reduce, not only emissions, but also resources consumption and so on)?
A: We must understand that humanity does not face just one crisis or two, but many. We are depleting a long list of resources, destroying habitat for other species, polluting the oceans, and so on. Even if we managed to solve the problem of climate change through some technology that captured and stored atmospheric CO2, we would still face several other dilemmas, each of which could cause the collapse of organized society. This will continue to be true as long as our population and our consumption of resources continue to grow. The only way to address all of these challenges is to reduce our population and reduce our consumption, so that we are living within Earth’s long-term carrying capacity.
Q: It would obviously be better to leave untouched whatever fossil fuels are still underground. What do you think are the chances of this happening?
A: It depends. That could happen if the economy completely disintegrates, so that social cohesion disappears. Drilling for oil or mining coal in large quantities from deeply buried seams requires social organization; without social coherence, we might burn up the world’s remaining forests but we wouldn’t be able to get at the fossil fuels.
On the other hand, we could get serious about climate change and institute some form of effective cap-and-trade scheme that would get us off of fossil fuels entirely by 2035 or so. If I were laying odds, I think the former would be more likely than the latter; but since the latter is a far more desirable outcome, it still deserves every ounce of effort.
Q: We should reduce the current generation of CO2 by 3/4 within the next 2-3 decades. You stated that we may have 25 to 40% less available of energy within 25 years. Would this lead to a roughly 50% cut in emissions?
A: Not necessarily. On the basis of depletion alone, world oil production will begin to decline around 2010, and coal production around 2025 or 2030. Since coal will peak later, that means that a greater proportion of our energy will be coming from coal than from oil. Therefore emissions may not decline so much or so fast as total energy—unless we implement emissions reduction agreements.
Q: The collapse of the economy will affect mainly the industrialized countries, which are also the ones that generate more carbon emissions. This would be an additional help to bring the emissions down, wouldn’t it?
A: Yes, as long as we handle the economic collapse rationally. My fear is that when people find themselves unable to heat their homes they will burn anything they can get their hands on to avoid freezing. This could be just as true in the northern parts of the US or Europe as in China. If this happens, the result could be deforestation and a temporary increase in carbon emissions.
Q: A huge problem, potentially much more threatening than the melting of the north polar ice cap, is the melting of tundra and permafrost. If that happens the stored methane will be released. Can you update us with this situation? Also, methane generates more CO2 than fossil fuels. What is the ratio?
A: The latest information is frightening: scientific observers are seeing the emergence of methane plumes in Siberia from the melting of permafrost. Methane is 20 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. The methane hydrates in arctic tundra and under the ocean floors contain enough methane to plunge the world’s climate system into an entirely new regime, so that we would not be speaking of two or three degrees of warming, but rather six, ten, or twenty degrees. The survival of the human species would be highly questionable under such circumstances.
Q: According to scientists the increase of the temperature will be between 2 degrees and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. What are the consequences with the two extremes?
A: With only one degree of warming we are already seeing the disappearance of the north polar icecap and the melting of most glaciers. Civilization may not be able to persist with 2 degrees of warming, and our species may not be able to survive if the planet heats by 6 degrees.
Q: I believe that pulling ourselves out of this situation will require a cultural shift, and ultimately our capacity to envision a better future. Do you agree?
A: Of course. It is useful to explore the process of cultural change to see how it occurs, because we will need a cultural shift of unprecedented scale and speed. Fortunately we have communications technologies that are capable of changing the thinking of the masses quickly; unfortunately, those communications media are mostly in the control of people who benefit from keeping people thinking along current lines.
Q: The recession is causing loss of jobs, investments, trade, etc. In a way, you could say that we are already moving towards downsizing, which is probably the best and easiest thing we could reduce our impact on the planet. What is your position in this regard?
A: Yes, from the viewpoint of the environment this may be a good thing. But it will only be a good thing for humanity if we are able to maintain societal coherence during the contraction. Again, this will require some intelligence and willingness to share and do without. Much depends on whether our political and cultural leaders can understand what is called for and avoid the temptation to try merely to return the economy to a condition of perpetual growth—which of course is an impossibility—rather than make the difficult choice to build a very different, sustainable economic infrastructure.
Q: How would you address the problem of cutting down emissions in different sectors such as food production, transportation, heating, industry in general and service based industry?
A: That question requires a very long answer—but fortunately it is mostly addressed in our “Real New Deal” document.
Q: Reading your books I have the feeling that you want to inspire people to take action for a better and promising future. What can everybody do in order to accomplish this challenging task? What is your message to your Italian readers?
A: I believe that life can be better without fossil fuels and without economic growth in the forms we are familiar with. Instead of increasing our population and our consumption of resources, we could be increasing our quality of life—better public health, environmental quality, and greater cultural richness. It is simply a matter of what we aim for and how we measure “progress.” It is the transition from one direction to the other that is crucial. We cannot continue with our current direction of favoring conventional growth—the economic collapse ensures that. But finding a direction that leads us to cultural richness and environmental stability will require some care and creativity. Fortunately, creativity is one of our great gifts as a species.